Meditators, Dancers, and Mind-body Awareness

Who's better at reading body-language: Skilled meditators or dancers?

Posted Sep 21, 2014

A patient of mine took a seat in my office. Before Sally said anything, I could tell something was wrong. She was hunched over and her expression was full of sadness. As always, I asked how she was doing.

“My mother died this week, I've been so distraught,” she said.

Sally's body language that day demonstrated the mind-body connection. No doubt, the way we think and feel affects our physical bodies.

Researchers from the University of California Berkeley recently looked into the mind-body connection. In the 2010 issue of Emotion, they reported how people who have been practicing meditation for two years or longer were skilled at making the mind-body connection. The meditators' interpretations were more accurate than that of non-meditators and, in particular, that of dancers.

The researchers studied dancers because these individuals spend hours mastering their bodies. They train their bodies to be stronger, more resilient, agile, and functional. The scientists tracked which two groups—meditators or dancers—were better at making the mind-body connection.

As part of their study, they created three groups: Group one comprised 21 dancers that had at least two years of training in modern dance or ballet. Group two consisted of 21 seasoned meditators who had at least two years of Vipassana practice. (Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, is a technique focused on observing one’s breathing, heartbeat, thoughts and feelings without judgement.) Group three was a control group that included 21 non-meditators and non-dancers.

All three groups were exposed to emotionally charged movies. As they watched the films, they were asked how they were feeling. In addition, they were hooked to electrodes, which allowed the scientists to measure how the participants' heart rates responded to the movies. The researchers sought to measure whether the participants’ perceptions of how they were feeling matched their physiological responses.

The researchers found no correlation between the dancers’ stated responses and their measured reactions. On the other hand, the researchers found a very strong correlation between the meditators reported responses and their heart rates.

So why does this matter? I believe it demonstrates if we are more in tune with our bodies, we can  better respond to them, listen to them, and make choices that keep us healthy. If, however, we are not in tune with our bodies, then things can go awry without us being aware of what’s taking place inside.

Being aware—in other words, awareness—is my favorite word in the universe. We can’t change something unless we are aware of it.

I believe meditation heightens our awareness. It’s not that meditating means our lives will go perfectly and never veer off course. But we are probably going to be more aware of what's taking place within and around us rather than be filled with confusion. 

By being more in tune and aware of our bodily sensations and of how we are feeling physically and emotionally, we can then make better choices to fix what’s happening inside of us. But if we’re not aware, we’re more like puppets; individuals who allow life to happen to us. Meditation cuts the puppet strings. It empowers us to identify what in our lives requires change. It helps us to be more aware and in the long run, healthier and happier.

So let’s start taking the time to meditate. I recommend twice a day: Once in the morning when you first wake up, and once in the evening just before going to bed. I believe this pattern is the most wonderful way to practice. Over time, you’ll improve your mind-body connection.